[Since I’m talking about character deaths here, there will be spoilers ahead.]
So, I would be completely remiss if I didn’t think about the flip side to my recent post about character death. It’s a rough topic to tackle when that character is some form of minority or typically oppressed person, even if they aren’t the only one of their ‘type’ (or one of the only pair, as is often the case in LGBT deaths these days). It’s also an emotional topic that will carry immense weight with the audience and the characters in the story, for good or for ill, no matter which character ends up filling this role. Well, I guess except red shirts. They still get remembered, but not usually because of their impact on the plot.
Yet even red shirts tend to come forth with the same goal – to shock everyone, to shift the story, and to prove that this is serious stuff. This isn’t some Disney war where only the badduns end up axed (actually, even Disney has killed a few main protagonists at this point). Now, of those three reasons, ‘shock value’ might often be the one that angers the most fans, but shock value does turn into numbers. The biggest one for me, though, is the second. A drastic shift in the story. There’s a reason the mentor almost always dies on the hero’s journey. Nothing is going to change ye younge chosen one more than losing the person who got them where they are, and now they have to strike out on their own. Or in bigger ensemble pieces, we have the loss of friends, comrades, and family to turn a once innocent child into a would-be mercenary.
But, haven’t we seen quite a lot of that lately?
Sure, death is a great motivator and a character’s death will most definitely draw attention (there is, after all, no such thing as bad press, which becomes more true every day it seems). Somehow, though, it seems like almost every show puts this into play. Even shows that don’t have to go there find some way to go out of their way to go there. Big names like Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire have set a bit of a standard for our dramas over the last several years. Even some comedies will go there if they want to be dramatic. Or sometimes they’ll go there even when they aren’t looking to be dramatic and it’ll create some of the most bizarre death episodes I’ve ever seen:
They put a laugh track over it. It’s just…so bizarre. Granted I don’t know much about Seinfeld since I never really liked it. (I also never particularly liked Friends – you may burn me at the stake later.) So maybe in the context of the whole overall show if you watch everything, maybe that scene isn’t as weird as I find it to be.
(Did you think I was going to talk about how she died? I mean, death by envelope licking is bizarre too, but knowing that it was probably the goal of the show to be as ridiculous as possible makes me care less about that than I do about how they addressed it. Besides, it is theoretically possible, even if it’s not probable.)
Those articles I linked up there talk about the whole thing much more eloquently than I’d be able to, being a barely semi-TV watcher at best, but it can all be summed up with a simple “Is death in general overdone?” Death is kind of losing it’s poignancy. A lot of people I talk to say they might not even bother with a show that’s just going to kill a ton of characters because why should they? Though there’s still many who are glued to Game of Thrones and others like it trying to pick who will die next like it’s some kind of game. So there’s that I suppose.
Of course I’m not talking about mass death in a story. I’m talking about one death – One very important character causing a very pivotal turn of events. Since it’s literature, there’s no issue of finding a way to fit or remove someone into or out of a ten year long show, there’s no fear of an actor leaving. There’s just me and the story.
Which leaves me with the biggest of all the burning questions: Is this story necessary?
I have a story with a character whom I love but who’s death would propel the story to all sorts of new levels that it will not be able to reach with her alive. Sure it could reach other levels, but are those levels that I want to explore? Are those levels strong enough? Are the plots where she dies strong and important enough? I asked why the writers on Buffy the Vampire Slayer had to go with the Tara’s-death-for-Dark-Willow plot, or why they had to do Dark Willow at all. I’ve seen a lot of people noting that in retrospect Dark Willow was one of the strongest arcs for everyone’s favorite lady-loving witch in their opinions but Tara’s death still stands out as a shot to the heart for many, many people. Myself included. That moment still bugs me to this day. And yet I find myself considering something that could be similarly painful for others in my own story.
So, given my own history and the history of an audience that I would love to garner the respect of, and given my feelings of ‘sure it might be great, but did that story have to be told?’ Is my plot absolutely necessary – isn’t there somewhere else I can go?
With that on my mind, I’ve been trying to make a list of alternatives. You know, actually trying to be creative. Try something different from what has become common place. And…well, I’ve felt that my efforts are really lackluster. Not all in part because the options seem all that bad to me but because when I look at my vast knowledge of various movies, shows, books, and so on, I remember how I feel about options similar to these and…well, they’re not amazing ways to handle things, unless they’re handled really well, and I have more faith that I could handle a death correctly than make one of these versions into a strong story.
Taking out the option of not removing any of the main cast from the story (I’m sorry, the story would just be too by-the-numbers if they stay an intact group the whole way through) there are some various contenders.
The weakest, to me, is the death-but-come-back arc. Every time I think of someone dying and coming back, I think of the Swan Princess III. Sure, it happened in the first Swan Princess movie, but that one was actually kind of sweet and slightly sensible (the bad guy who had cast a spell on her died, so she un-died). The third one, though, had her come back via the burning of papers. She literally came out of the smoke. Which, I suppose, kind of is a Greek God way to come back to life, but it was just so horrible that even child-me rolled my eyes. On another hand, I think of shows who did it a bit better, like Buffy and Steven Universe.
The key thing to those two is that it wasn’t the finale. The heroes didn’t save the day and get rewarded with someone coming back to life. The resurrections in both of those cases were the beginnings of brand new plots. In my case, I need someone out of the way until after the main plot ends. Maybe they could make it back just in time for the finale, but any sooner and it would bring me back to square one. I am Swan Princess territory on this one, so it’s just a no-go.
This also eliminates similar ideas, such as her ‘spirit being magically shattered across the vast multi-verse’ or being turned to stone. Though I’m still considering the stone one as a back up back up idea if I can come up with a way for it to not run into the frustrations mentioned above.
On the flip side of having the group and eliminating one of them, there’s the option to eliminate the relationship, but…that’s problematic in a different way. To avoid killing a lesbian character, I decided not to put her in any relationship at all? Yeah. That’s the other extreme and part of the comeback that tends to anger me the most when writer’s kill minority characters. (“Well if we can’t treat them like every other character, then we might not write them at all!” completely ignoring that certain types of characters tend to hold the immunity stick while these characters get axed.) From a purely story perspective, I just don’t like it. It’s not a plot that I as a writer want to pursue.
There is the option of having them all be together, then taking their happiness away from them. That keeps them all alive, has them together, and leaves the option for them to get back together. I’m keeping this one on the table, but…I will admit, it’s one of those ones that I don’t think I’ll do very well. I’ll either make the break up so good it won’t make sense for them to get back together or it will be so lame that everyone will hate it. I don’t have faith in myself. But lack of faith doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try, so that’s why it’s not eliminated from my list of options.
There’s a plethora of other no-kill options, like kidnapping and/or brain washing. It works well enough with Bucky (The Winter Soldier), but it can also fall flat very quickly. There’s also the option of possession, which is similar to brain washing but another entity has taken over and is forcing one to do their will. The story I’m writing is not without it’s possession stories either, so in theory she could fit right in. The problem with these choices, though, is that they aren’t strong enough for the story. Large chunks of the plot and character development would have to be completely erased because the protagonist would not hold as much of the blame in the eyes of the other characters and everyone would have a goal to work towards to get the lost character back. Hope and determination are powerful motivators.
There’s one more that I’ve been toying with. It both hurts and makes sense – kill someone else in the group. Leave the leading lady and her wifey-poo alone, and kill one of the other two. The other two are both siblings to the wife, so it keeps the emotional turmoil. While it strips some layers I really want to explore (either the sister or the brother and their entire plot, since, you know, one of them would be dead), it does shift the death to someone else that’s a bit less of a minority. It adds an entirely new layer where the protagonist bears the responsibility for leading her wife’s beloved sibling to their death, and the wife could also take on some of the original plot plans from the character that died. They’re not interchangeable by a long shot, but losing a family member you care deeply about is a big enough push to cause some character changes.
This is probably the most plausible option, but…I still don’t like it. What I have planned for the protagonist, the brother, and the sister are all plots that I’ve come to adore. If I can get them to paper the way I see them in my head, I’m fairly certain people wouldn’t feel that their stories weren’t worth it. Of course, then my thoughts always circle back to Tara. I bet her writers probably felt the same way. That their story had to be told, that it was best for the plot. That it made everything that came after it worth it. I know mine won’t be worth it to many people. It never could be. At this point, I really just want it to be worth it to me. Is what I would lose, with any of these scenarios, worth the gains?
I don’t have the answers right now. I’ve kind of been working at other projects while mulling this over, but I don’t have a definite choice yet. The first step, I suppose, is just actually doing something. Then we’ll see how things go from there.